History of Confederacy’s Plot to Build a Blue-Water Navy Reads Like a Spy Thriller - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
History of Confederacy’s Plot to Build a Blue-Water Navy Reads Like a Spy Thriller
An Alabama Confederate monument displays statues of soldiers from the Confederacy’s four branches of military service (JNix/Shutterstock)

The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy
By Alexander Rose
(Mariner Books, 288 pages, $29)

The Lion and the Fox is not a John le Carré spy thriller. But it has many of the same elements in that it shows how both national politics and individuals shape events. In it, we find spies, counterspies, agents, double agents, informers, a mole at the highest level of government, greedy lawyers, careerist bureaucrats, shameless politicians, and an assortment of other grifters along with a small number of brave and principled men. However, this isn’t a novel but a nonfiction account of the secret efforts of the Confederate States of America to build a blue-water navy and the struggles of Union agents to sink this mission.

Because of a lack of shipyards and manufacturing facilities generally in the South, Confederate desires for a navy had to be fulfilled or thwarted in England, the shipbuilding capital of the world. And more specifically in Liverpool, a tough town of about a half million souls at the time, which, Rose says, built more ships each year than the rest of the world combined. It was a rowdy place with an extremely high homicide rate and probably more brothels per square yard than anyplace else on the planet. Rose’s description of Victorian Liverpool, where much of the book’s action takes place, out-Dickens Dickens.

England was officially neutral during our Civil War, though sentiments there moved from mostly pro-Confederate early in the war, when the Confederates were seen as plucky underdogs who just wanted to go their own way, to mostly pro-Union later when Britons began to see the conflict as a war by Southerners to preserve a slave-owning aristocracy. So shipbuilding for the South had to be done in secret, using all kinds of subterfuges to disguise who the real buyers of the ships were.

The Confederacy wanted two kinds of ships. They wanted fast blockade runners to penetrate the Union’s naval blockade of Southern ports, which cut way down on cotton exports, the proceeds of which brought the Confederacy the cash it needed to finance its war effort. They also wanted commerce raiders to damage Northern merchant shipping, thereby hurting the Union economy and Lincoln’s ability to execute the war. It was hoped that the commerce raiders would cause Yankee shippers to demand that U.S. warships be taken off of blockade duty to protect the merchant ships. It wasn’t a bad strategy on paper in 1861, but as the South entered the conflict short of just about every resource necessary to conduct a war, it came to very little in practice.

By Rose’s count, the United States Navy had 42 warships in 1861, with many more coming online during the war. The Confederate States Navy, he says, had one. So the need was great. But it couldn’t be supplied openly in Britain, thanks to that nation’s Foreign Enlistment Act of 1819, which was designed to prevent Britons from fighting as mercenaries in countries Britain had no feud with. The act was construed to mean that warships could not be manufactured in Britain for use against any nation Britain was not at war with.

The book features a large cast of characters, high and low, some noble and some knaves. Some competent and some quite the other thing. Some principled and others for sale. As for the title and main characters, the lion is Union agent Thomas Dudley, a Quaker lawyer and a fierce and undiplomatic ideologue, who in his dealings with others was about as subtle as blunt force trauma. The fox is Confederate agent James Bulloch, a former U.S. Navy officer. Bulloch was charming, aristocratic, and devious. He was also skilled at taking advantage of the loopholes in British law and at manipulating people to his advantage. (There’s no mention in the book of whether or not Bulloch was a poker player, but he would have been a good one.) The two men’s styles could not have been more different, with Bulloch preferring to operate quietly in the shadows over Dudley’s straightforward, in-your-face approach.

For the first years of the war, Dudley plays the coyote to Bulloch’s road runner. Bulloch enjoys some success, supplying the South with a number of blockade runners, war munitions, and commerce raiders. Two of the commerce raiders, which came out of disguise as CSS Florida and CSS Alabama, put some dents in Union shipping. Just not enough of one to change the course of the war.

As British public opinion became more pro-Union, the British government went from a timid, strict-letter-of-the-law approach to enforcing the Foreign Enlistment Act to a more aggressive spirit-of-the-law approach, which tipped the tide in favor of Dudley and the Union. Just about everything was going the Union way by the war’s end, so why should this be any different?

The Lion and the Fox is author and historian Alexander Rose’s sixth nonfiction book. This one is well-researched, the writing clear, and the complex story economically told in just 214 pages of text. I do believe the late John le Carré would have enjoyed this book, as it skillfully displays spying, plotting, and devious, sub-rosa skullduggery. Those interested in the Civil War, naval history, or the politics of war will also find The Lion and the Fox worth the reading time.

Larry Thornberry
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Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.
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